Bill Lee, bassist and composer who scored son Spike Lee’s films, dies at 94

Bill Lee, a bassist and composer who scored the early films of his son Spike Lee, wrote folk-jazz operas that channeled the voices of his enslaved ancestors, and performed with musicians including Harry Belafonte, Bob Dylan, Duke Ellington and Aretha Franklin, died May 24 at his home in Brooklyn. He was 94.

His death was announced in an Instagram post by Spike Lee. Additional details were not immediately available.

Mr. Lee was an acclaimed sideman and session player with a rich acoustic bass sound. His sensitive approach and versatility — he could be gentle or intense, depending on the song — made him a favorite of producers including John Hammond, the folk impresario who brought Dylan and Franklin to Columbia Records.

“Every folk singer wanted to have him because of his sense of how to shape a tune,” said jazz bassist Ron Carter, a frequent collaborator.

“He found a way to make the bass do what he wanted to do. He didn’t sound like most bass players at that time: His sound was not aggressive, it wasn’t fighting to be heard. It was a sound that gravitated to the listener’s ear. He was,” Carter continued, “a wonderful accompanist.”

When Dylan recorded the 1965 folk song “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” he was backed in the studio only by Mr. Lee, whose wistful bass line accompanied the singer’s guitar and harmonica.

Mr. Lee also performed with stars including Odetta, Arlo Guthrie, John Lee Hooker, Billie Holiday, Gordon Lightfoot, Simon and Garfunkel, and Josh White. He worked with premier jazz musicians, including pianist Ray Bryant and saxophonists Gene Ammons, Johnny Griffin and Clifford Jordan. And he established himself as a well-regarded composer, writing songs (recorded by bandleader Max Roach) and operas (including “The Depot” and “Little Johnny”) that he played with his own groups.

“His music has the complex harmonies of bebop and hard bop,” New York Times journalist Corey Kilgannon wrote in 2008, “but it also has a sincere, down-home, churchy feel. His passages move to interesting and unexpected places, but they resolve before long in a way that is simple and sincere, earthy and somehow very satisfying. He talks the same way.”

For Mr. Lee, music was a family affair. He had grown up playing the drums in a band with his parents — his mother was a classically trained pianist, his father a cornet player and bandmaster — and six siblings. Two sisters and a brother joined him in a jazz-folk group, the Descendants of Mike and Phoebe, named in honor of their enslaved ancestors. Later in life, he led a group called the Family Tree Singers, which included his second wife, Susan Lee, and their son, Arnold, an alto saxophonist.

When Spike Lee, his oldest son, began making student films at New York University, he enlisted Mr. Lee to write the scores. Mr. Lee scored Spike’s thesis film, “Joe’s Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads” (1983), and worked with increasingly larger ensembles while writing the music for the director’s first theatrical releases, including “She’s Gotta Have It” (1986), “School Daze” (1988) and “Do the Right Thing” (1989), which used a string orchestra and jazz ensemble led by saxophonist Branford Marsalis.

For Spike Lee’s film “Mo’ Better Blues” (1990), about a trumpeter (Denzel Washington) trying to juggle his love life and career, Bill Lee marshaled an orchestra of some 90 musicians, by his count. “The music is sensuous big-city jazz from around midnight, swirling through cigarette smoke and perfume and the musty smell of a saloon,” wrote film critic Roger Ebert.

But he never scored his son’s movies again, with Spike turning to jazz musician and composer Terence Blanchard for most of his later films.

“Working with Spike was an interlude,” said Mr. Lee, who added that he had never been interested in film and wanted to get back to his jazz roots. He also said that he and his son had a falling-out, stemming in part from Mr. Lee’s second marriage and a loan request, which Spike turned down, after Mr. Lee was arrested in 1991 for heroin possession.

The drug case was dismissed, according to an account in Newsday, but Mr. Lee described the episode as a turning point.

“I’m glad I was arrested. It woke me up,” he said, adding that “dope was not part of my life until I was 40 years old.”

In interviews, Spike Lee downplayed the rift, praising his father’s achievements as a musician and composer while also lamenting that Mr. Lee was “a terrible businessman” who had struggled to finance his operas.

“My father has great talent,” he told Rolling Stone in 1991, “but I don’t think we’re ever going to see the day where he’s going to get the kind of recognition he deserves. In a way, maybe that’s why I’ve been able to do what I’ve done — maybe that’s why I’ve gotten what I’ve got — because of what was denied him.”

William James Edwards Lee — some sources add a “III” at the end of his name — was born in rural Snow Hill, Ala., on July 23, 1928. While studying music at Morehouse College, a historically Black school in Atlanta, he discovered the bebop recordings of Charlie Parker and decided to take up the bass.

“He just demanded that I play,” Mr. Lee told the Boston Globe in 1992, recalling the power of Parker’s music. “Everything he did said, ‘Pick up an instrument and let’s go.’ There was no way I could fight that.”

After graduating in 1951, Mr. Lee married Jacquelyn Shelton, who became a teacher. They lived in Chicago before moving to New York in 1959, and settled at a Brooklyn brownstone across from Fort Greene Park. Mr. Lee remained there for decades, composing at an upright piano in the basement and, more recently, drawing noise complaints from neighbors who didn’t care for the late-night jam sessions he hosted with friends.

His wife died of cancer in 1976. Mr. Lee later married Susan Kaplan. She survives him, along with their son, Arnold; Spike and three other children from Mr. Lee’s first marriage, David, Joie and Cinque; a brother; and two grandchildren. Another son from his first marriage, Christopher, died in 2013.

Mr. Lee arranged music for “A Hand Is on the Gate,” an evening of Black poetry and song that opened on Broadway in 1966 with a cast that included Roscoe Lee Browne, James Earl Jones and Cicely Tyson.

He was also the founding director of the New York Bass Violin Choir, which featured what Times jazz critic John S. Wilson considered “seven of the best bass violinists in New York,” including Carter and Mr. Lee himself. The ensemble released a self-titled 1980 album for Strata-East Records and performed portions of Mr. Lee’s operas, which he started writing in earnest after a 1965 trip home to Snow Hill.

“As I walked through the community, I felt the flow of land and earth that I walked surge up into me, and I knew my ancestral stream was intact,” Mr. Lee recalled in the Globe interview. “I started writing about Snow Hill and the stories my grandfather and other people used to tell me. Then I went to Newport,” a summer home for the folk and jazz scenes, “and saw the old blues singers, gospel church singers, and I realized that I’d never valued it as much as I should have. I said, ‘Oh, I have this. This is me.’ ”

“I don’t like to call on the ancestors too much,” he added. “I don’t like to use up the Lord’s time, but if I need the ancestors, I call and they are there.”

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